I skipped some blogging during the past week because my Ironic Friend came to visit! Yes, someone actually came to visit me in flyover country. (Read previous posts about IF here and here.)
Ironic Friend always seems to have the best reading suggestions, and this time she suggested Rebekah Nathan's My Freshman Year *What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student (NY: Penguin, 2006; first published by Cornell UP, 2005). Basically, Nathan, an anthropology professor, used a sabbatical year to do field research into student culture at her university by enrolling as a freshman, living in the dorms, taking classes, and so forth. She was at AnyU, a pseudonymous public university, bigger than NWU, but the students sound familiar.
It’s one of those books that reminds me of things I’ve forgotten from my own time as an undergrad way back in the stone ages and makes me realize how much some things have changed. Nathan (that's a pseudonym, by the way) got me thinking especially about a couple issues, mostly thinking about how I can do a better job connecting with my students in light of her findings and discussion.
Nathan talks a lot about how students manage their experience at AnyU, especially how they choose general education classes, how they fit in working for money, classwork, and the other things they do, and how they think about their management. I can't singlehandedly give my students enough money that they don't have to work for money, but I can rearrange some of my own schedule issues to work better with my students' schedules, especially my office hour scheduling.
Nathan points out that she'd typically set up office hours during the middle of the day, before or after the lecture classes she taught (136). As a student, however, she discovered that she almost inevitably had another class to attend during her professors' office hours. She also points out rightly that more students work more hours these days than in previous decades.
Here's my situation: My schedule looks like this: classes: MW 9-12, W 6-9pm, and F 9-11. So I actually have two non-classroom days during the week. I also have meetings, of course. One obligation runs from 3-5pm every other Tuesday, another 1-2 on not quite random Tuesdays. I also have my athletic group on Tuesday evenings.
I drive a few minutes to campus, but if I want to park near my office building, I need to arrive before 8am. If I arrive between 12-1pm, I can sometimes find parking in the lot near my building. I'm a slowish starter in the morning, and value my 809am time for drinking some coffee, reviewing teaching notes, and waking up more.
NWU expects me to schedule 3 office hours per week, and to be available by appointment on some other occasions.
Before reading Nathan, I was planning to put my office hours MW 12-1, and F 11-12, knowing that few students would show up, and that I'd mostly work in my office. (But you can never count on that; if I need that time for prep or something, a student WILL show up.)
Now I'm looking for suggestions, and thinking that maybe I'll schedule my hours M 12-1, W 5-6, and F 11-12. The big change is to Wednesday, when maybe some students would be able to come to office hours after their other classes. I'd still have a chance to go home if I needed to, but could also just stay on campus. (Most of my Wednesday evening class prep would be done on Mondays and Tuesdays, I think.)
What do you folks think?
Nathan talks about how students choose which reading assignments to do for a given class, and crassly, the choice comes down to which assignments they'll be quizzed on, or they'll need for homework, or for which they'll be a discussion, especially if they're likely to have to participate (137-139).
Now, I KNOW that deep down, and tend to give quizzes a lot in my lower level classes. But Nathan brings out the point that more experienced students are even MORE likely to skip readings they don't think they'll REALLY need. I was exactly that student in many of my classes in college (though I tended to do extra suggested readings for the classes I really liked).
I think I'm going to make a habit of giving quizzes and such in my upper level classes, or having regular writing assignments (yes, which will have to be graded) that respond to readings. I resist giving quizzes in grad classes, but I know tons of times when I didn't do all the readings for a grad seminar, and I know other students didn't do them all either. So how to really encourage people to find the readings worth doing?
Plays are easy. Yes, we're going to discuss the plot and such, and it's not necessarily obvious from the title. But what about contextual readings? I'm thinking that for grad students here, responsive writing to many assignments will help them see that the readings ARE meaningful and will help them understand the complexity of early modern English culture, drama, and such.
Nathan points out that interlibrary loan services seem woefully underused by undergraduate students, and then explains that most student papers get written in a time frame of about a week (even though we'd LIKE to believe our students start their papers earlier), and that they can't actually get interlibrary loan books within that framework (139-140).
I've been aware of this problem before, and have my longer writing class paper set up so that students start WAY early. But I think I need to do more to push them to actually start the research process earlier. What are the best ways to do that?
Nathan's discussion of diversity in college culture is absolutely fascinating. She has a chapter on the experiences of international students, and also talks about the ways that majority white US students don't experience much diversity. That's certainly true at NWU, where some of our students express real disappointment that they don't learn more about diversity, get chances to interact more with international students or students of other races and ethnicities than their own.
One problem is that I can't realistically change the makeup of the great state of the Northwoods. Most people in this area are white, lutefisk white, stereotypically Prairie Home Companion white. And Christian. And so forth.
A second problem is that our students don't always take advantage of the opportunities they have; they don't get involved in different community groups, don't go to the local Pow Wow or international fair, don't introduce themselves to international students, or even talk to international students in their classes. It's SCARY, I know, but part of college is learning to deal with certain anxieties and discomforts, and learning that it's really NOT that scary to say hello, smile, reach out and shake someone's hand.
The international students Nathan interviews sound as if they'd welcome a bit of real friendliness and curiousity. The international students I know here certainly say that they would.
So how to encourage all our students? How to push them out of the comfort zone and into engagement?
All in all, then, a really great book to read at this point in life.
When I first got out of grad school, having taught for several years, I thought I knew how to teach. I looked a bit askance at people who read books about teaching or talked about reading books about teaching. More and more now, I realize I know less and less about teaching. And yet I have reason to think I'm a reasonably effective teacher.
But I'm not a great professor. And that's the goal.